Open plan layouts are increasingly being adopted at new-age workplaces to encourage collaboration and promote a flat, non-hierarchical organisational model. However, the initial enthusiasm towards an open plan workplace has certainly worn off with focus now shifting to the downside of this modern office environment.

A new study carried out by Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bedfordshire reveals that employees are more self-conscious in an open plan office, with changes observed in how they dress and behave in this environment.

The study, which was published in the journal Gender, Work and Organization, was carried out over a period of three years at a UK local authority that had moved into a new shared office building. The research analysed the behaviour of around 1,000 employees who were previously occupying six separate departmental buildings.

Typical of an open plan design, the building featured a lot of glass, large, open offices and collaborative spaces that aimed to erase boundaries and encourage networking among employees.

Feedback from the employees in the study revealed that the constant visibility had made them change their behaviour as well as sartorial choices while the lack of privacy made some feel exposed, especially when they received bad news. Additionally, senior employees were identified by their smart clothing and assertive gait; this group also tended to cover more ground in the open office, compared to more lowly employees who remained within their own section of the office.

Lead author Dr Alison Hirst of Anglia Ruskin University, explains that the change from a more closed, compartmentalised office space to a new open plan, transparent and fluid working space, can be quite unsettling rather than liberating for employees as it makes them more conscious of their visibility.

But there’s also an upside: Workers in an open plan office environment feel more equal as everybody is more approachable in an open space. Some also see it as an opportunity to dress better and build a new identity.